In a dusty shed on a ranch in the valley of Oaxaca, in a bucket of broken artifacts a farmer had collected in his field, I saw one that didn’t look like the others.
It was a small and round-faced image, with no headdress or ear spools or any other of the adornment common to these little figures. A plain-looking face. But I noticed faint lines around the mouth and eyes and I realized they were the marks of a flayed mask and that I held in my hand a figure of Xipe Totec, whose priest wore the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim to represent the god of spring and new growth.
In the Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec was the god who lived and died and was reborn, the god of renewal and rebirth and new vegetation, the life that lay concealed beneath apparent death, waiting to return, renewed, to feed the earth. The god who showed himself in the germinating maize and the snake who shed his skin. For twenty days the priest wore the flayed skin of a victim sacrificed to represent the god who sacrificed himself and mothers brought ailing children to touch the corrupting flesh and be cured.
It was curious to think that the image I held in my hand, this small figure of Xipe, had been fashioned by a hand who thought him beautiful. That perhaps the last but one or two who had held this image had seen and approved of these bloody rituals and thought them necessary to the rightness of the world.
But would he have thought him beautiful? It would have been a spiritual beauty, of course, that he might have seen beneath the garment of rotting human flesh. But of all the puissant attributes of this bloody and regenerative god, would his worshiper have said also that he was beautiful?
I assume that he would, understanding that this is but one of the many ways in which he and I dwelt in mental worlds incomprehensible to the other.